A teenage girl’s body floats down river, a cougar stalks the resort area, a man shows up with a bullet in his leg and a price on his head…all the elements of an enthralling mystery. And Minnesota writer William Kent Krueger doesn’t disappoint in his 2009 novel, Copper River, set in Michigan’s U.P. and featuring his series character Cork O’Connor.
I’d seen Krueger speak as part of the Minnesota Crime Wave authors panel at the Spring Green, Wisconsin Literary/Mystery Festival in April. I liked the picture he painted of his main character, a small town Minnesota sheriff who was half Irish, half Ojibwe. But I was especially intrigued that he set the book in my home territory of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The story takes place in the fictional Lake Superior shore town of Bodine, just west of the very real city of Marquette. Kruger describes it thus:
Bodine, Michigan, was the end of the line. It lay near the terminus of thirty miles of poorly maintained county road that ran northwest out of Marquette along the shore of Lake Superior. It was Anatomy of a Murder territory, a place that despite its beauty was probably best filmed in black and white. For decades Bodine had been fighting a slow death.
While Cork O’Connor is the main character, the story is told primarily from the point of view of the teenager Ren (short for Renoir) whose mother is Cork’s cousin, and occasionally from the points of view of other characters, like Ren’s mother Jewell and his best friend Charlie (Charlene). That’s a risky thing for an author to do, since one of the reason’s we buy into a particular mystery series is because we buy into the main character. But it was interesting to see this main character through the eyes of people who don’t know him very well, but whose very lives eventually depend on him.
Krueger takes another risk in the novel, in that he allows a secondary character, Dina Willner, a friend of Cork’s and a professional “security consultant” to carry most of the action. This is risky, because it puts the main character in a bit of a passive role throughout a large part of the story. But the relationship, both professional and personal, between Cork and Dina speaks volumes about the main character and told us that he is anything but a passive man. And I loved that this woman who came to help her wounded friend and his extended family was strong, confident and knew her business.
“I’m not going to race you, Charlie. We’ve already been there. The thing that’s important for you to understand now is there’s no reason to run. You’re safe. We’re not going to let anything happen to you.”
“Safe? Because of you two? Grandma Moses and” –she cast a desultory look at Cork—“the gimp? If I believed that, I’d be so screwed."
Dina paused, giving a few moments of weight to the girl’s words, evidence that she’d heard. Then she said, “One of the things I’m sometimes paid to do is protect people. I’m very good at it.”“Yeah? Bite me.”
Dina tossed the spoon toward Cork, who managed a decent catch. “Stand up,” she said to the girl.
Charlie stayed firmly rooted on the sofa.
“Stand up and hit me.”
Surprise replaced the girl’s glare. “What?”
“You’ve been in fights before?”
“Ever hit anybody?”
“Then stand up and hit me.”
“You think I won’t?”
“I think you can’t.”
Charlie launched herself from the sofa. She went straight at Dina, who nimbly sidestepped. Charlie spun, her right fist in a fast, angry sweep. Dina caught her arm, twisted, and sent Charlie down. The girl was so fast, she seemed to be back on her feet even before she’d hit the floor. This time she attacked with a kick. Dina danced back and the girl’s foot connected with air. Charlie’s own inertia caused her to lose her balance and she fell squarely on her butt. This time she sat there, breathing hard and staring at the floor.
“So,” Dina said dryly above her, “how about a little breakfast after that workout?
“I’m not hungry.” Charlie picker herself up and stomped toward the guest room at the back of the cabin.
After he heard the door slam, Cork said, “You didn’t exactly win her heart.”
Dina grabbed the wooden spoon from him. “All right, maybe it was a little over the top, but she pissed me off, okay. I didn’t like her attitude. The important thing is that if the shit ever hits the fan, she’ll understand I can handle it. By the way, how’s the leg this morning, gimp?”
“Let’s just hope the shit doesn’t hit the fan. I’d be so screwed.”
“How about that omelet now?” She headed toward the kitchen.
“If I said no, would you beat me up?”
“Don’t test me.”
I had not read any of Krueger's previous books, but the backstory that led up to Copper River was revealed organically in bits and pieces throughout the novel in such a way that I learned what I needed to learn but never felt like I was being “told” what had gone on before. In fact, now I want to read the previous novel to find out exactly how the backstory played out.
The characters in Copper River are multi-dimensional. The story has enough twists and turns that I had difficulty at times putting it down. The only issue I took with Krueger’s story is that he several times referred to the characters as living on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Yes, Michigan is indeed made up of two peninsulas, both of which are surrounded by massive bodies of water. And yes, people live on the Keweenaw Peninsula or on the Door Peninsula of Wisconsin. But Yoopers think of the U.P. in terms of being part of the state—in fact there are some who would rather it be a state unto itself. And Trolls (those who live below the Mackinaw Bridge) never talk about living in (much less on) the Lower Peninsula, they just live in Michigan. Is there a problem with a Minnesotan saying his characters live on the Upper Peninsula. Of course not. Unless you are a Yooper. Then you know the book was written by an out-of-stater.
Still, I highly recommend William Kent Krueger's Copper River. It’s a good read. It’s a suspenseful mystery. And it’s characters are well worth spending time with.